Each and every season, the NBA D-League boasts and employs a slew of up and coming athletes, quality coaches, future big league staffers, budding referees, and others. The list goes on, as many of these aforementioned individuals move on to greener pastures and become studs in The Association.
Nevertheless, there's no doubt: one could make a significant case for Jeff Potter owning the glowing distinction of being the most fascinating/interesting person in all of the minor league.
Before becoming President and Owner of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and spearheading a special movement while inviting an entire community to get beyond this (now) favored franchise, Potter was an attorney. Before that, he too, was a professional basketball player attempting to pave his own path.
Fast-forward to 2015, and he stands tall as the head of the sole remaining independently owned team in the D-League. As Fort Wayne awaits their opponent (between the Canton Charge and Sioux Falls Skyforce) in the second round of the postseason, the team has a chance to repeat the success it had last season. Conner Henry won Coach of the Year and Ron Howard won Most Valuable Player as the Mad Ants emerged to win their first minor league title.
RidiculousUpside.com recently spoke with Potter to discuss the rise of the Mad Ants, his own personal journey and the role he's played thus far, as well as what could be next for his franchise. What will become of the team as the D-League embraces more hybrid and direct affiliations? All of that and more is answered in the Q&A below, as it's clear Potter's love for the game of basketball and sincerity for his team and its community shines through. Continue reading for more.
Q: Can you begin by discussing your role and what you do with the Mad Ants?
A: It's two-sided. I'm President/Owner of the team. I oversee the business side where I work alongside two great people in Heidi Kessens and Garrett Martz who kind of run the administrative, sales, and basketball sides. I do all the hiring of the coaches and the trades; I pick up the players.
Q: Being the sole remaining owner who makes basketball decisions on a regular basis, where does your interest in doing so stem from? How did this all begin for you?
A: It's definitely the fun part of it. I played basketball for a number of years. I played overseas and in minor leagues. I was one of these guys, those who try to get a shot in the NBA or better European leagues. When I was done with playing, I went back to law school and was a prosecutor in Chicago for a couple of years before my father-in-law and I decided to partner up and start this team up. We looked at a number of different options; minor league baseball and hockey teams. Things like that. The reason we liked the D-League so much was that it was an opportunity, not only to be a ticket taker, but to really get in there and create a team. That really has been the most fun part of it. It hasn't always been the highest of highs. We had a rough start the first few years of our existence. We've gradually gotten better.
Q: Seeing as how you operate with a staff that you hand select, how much of an asset has Coach Conner Henry been for you?
A: Conner has been a great hire for us. Duane Ticknor was our coach a few years ago, and really helped us right the ship with regard to making the playoffs and all that. Conner came in the next year, and frankly, I don't think a coach has had much greater success than he had leading our squad to a championship in his first year. He's continued to do a great job this year. We lost a lot of people from that team last year. Obviously we had Chris Porter and Ramon Harris, which is great, because those guys are leaders. We've had Trey McKinney-Jones and Matt Bouldin come back, but for the most part, we had to incorporate a lot of new people. With the number of affiliates that we have, you get a player down for a few games, and that's not easy. It's not always positive. They don't know the system and you end up with guys who haven't played together at all trying to figure it out on the fly. It has its challenges, but I think Conner has done a great job of it.
Q: Obviously the D-League is a league full of moving parts from year to year. It's difficult to build continuity. Having said that, would you say there's any pressure on the Mad Ants to repeat as champions?
A: I think there's internal pressure. You want to win. You get that feeling in your blood, and that's it. I'll tell you, It's a lot of fun to stand up on that podium afterwards. You get that big trophy. You're cutting down nets. You're spraying champagne all over each other. These are all entrepreneurs . These players have their own companies and are trying to build their brands and get better jobs. It's difficult to do it on any level, but to be able to get guys who are on the same page and not only sacrifice a little for a common goal, but ultimately win it, is a fabulous feeling. You want that feeling again, and that's what drives us today.
Q: We always hear about how important a local community's embrace is to a minor league team's success. What can you say about Fort Wayne and the Mad Ants' fan base?
A: I think Fort Wayne is a great supporter of minor league basketball. When we first got started, the D-League was sort of in its second phase in trying to get into more traditional minor league markets. We have a hockey team here that has been supported for sixty-something years. There's a baseball team that's been around for twenty-plus years. The support for us has just gotten bigger and better as we close out year eight and look ahead to number nine. It's about the town. Everyone chips in. They want to see their team succeed. We've been blessed to have a great fan base --- one that keeps growing in a town that, if you shown you're serious and want to be here for the long haul, they'll come out and support you. We're really happy here and love those who come out here.
You throw a party your first game and hope that people show up. That's all you can ask. I really can't express how thankful I am for these people who have taken to this idea of Mad Ants basketball and enjoy what we do. We love doing it for them. We have a blast and are so thankful for the community and their support.
Q: Ron Howard is the first person I associate with the Mad Ants and the team's commitment to the community. What can you say about his tenure with the team?
A: Ron is kind of a gold standard of what you want in a D-League player. He's a good player and is good with the community. He's from Chicago, but came here and decided he liked it here. He has a young family and it really is a wonderful place to raise your family. He saw that, and made this his home. I think that's important. We've seen that a lot with the hockey team; guys come and then they stay here. They become part of the community and its fabric. Ron did that for us. Not only was he the M.V.P. of the league last year, but we won a championship. In his seven years here, we've gone through a lot and I was very excited to share that with him.
Q: Lastly, it's clear to see what you have built and what this team means to the community. With the ongoing trend of single affiliations between NBA and D-League teams, what's next for your squad?
A: When we started this, the reason we did basketball was that we could pick the players, coaches, and be in charge of our product. It's like in any company, it's hard to give that away. You don't know if they'll have the same values as you do. You don't know if their goals will align with ours. There have been great examples of the hybrids. Others scare me a little bit. Beyond all that, it would materially change our business here and the reason why we invested. I see the trend and where things are going, but right now we're happy with where we're at. Being the lone independent squad has its challenges, but it's not something I'm looking to get out of.